By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; D02
INDIANAPOLIS -- As NFL coaches and front office officials mill about the NFL Scouting Combine and meet with reporters, they hear the same question and have no choice but to offer the same answer. And it might as well be a shoulder shrug.
If a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached by Friday, the 2010 season will be played without a salary cap and an unpredictable free agency period will immediately commence. Team officials across the league are having a tough time predicting exactly how it will unfold.
"No one really knows. It's unchartered waters," said San Francisco General Manager Scot McCloughan. "It'll be unique how it goes. I think the teams in the past that were risk-takers will probably still be risk-takers. The teams that have been conservative will remain conservative."
That could mean the Redskins will be major players during free agency this offseason. With a new coach, new general manager, an owner with a history of writing big checks and a roster ripe for change, the Redskins could be among the most aggressive teams, even though the pool of talent isn't considered especially deep.
Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan declined to discuss specific players, but the Redskins could find themselves attached to two of the biggest names available on the market, Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers and Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby. There are some Redskins officials who think Peppers will still be a strong pass rusher, and Peppers has expressed interest in playing for a 3-4 defense, a version of which Shanahan is expected to install. Dansby is an inside linebacker who already excels in the 3-4.
"Well, obviously I'm not going to go through our game plan for free agency," Shanahan said. "But we're going to do what we can."
Other unrestricted free agents that could pique Washington's interest include San Diego running back Darren Sproles, Green Bay left tackle Chad Clifton and Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson.
Veteran running backs Brian Westbrook and LaDanian Tomlinson are also looking for a new home. Having coached in the AFC West, Shanahan is especially familiar with Tomlinson, though many around the league don't believe the Redskins will pursue him.
"I know LT probably as good as anybody. He's a good friend," Shanahan said. "I've had a chance to get to know him through the years. Have the utmost respect for him."
The biggest dilemma facing teams this offseason will center on the large class of restricted free agents. If a new collective bargaining agreement isn't struck this week, 212 players who would normally be classified as unrestricted free agents will instead be restricted because they have less than six years of experience. That means there are fewer unrestricted free agents than usual and a lot more restricted.
Signing a restricted free agent is a tough proposition for many teams because they'd have to offer draft picks as compensation to the player's former team.
"I don't know how much movement there's gonna be," said Houston General Manager Rick Smith. "I think over the last 4 or 5 years, people have -- not that they didn't understand or realize it before -- but draft picks are at a premium these days. . . . I don't know if teams are going to be so forthcoming in giving up draft picks because I think everybody understands how valuable they are."
The NFL Draft and free agency are intimately connected. How a team elects to build its roster illustrates an organization's overarching philosophy.
"Some of the teams, it's not going to be the GM's decision. It's going to be ownership's decision," said the 49ers' McCloughan. "Do you blow it out to see if you got one year and win a championship? Or do you stay consistent so you can play in '11 and, 'We're not going to hurt ourselves for the future?' "
Teams that are rebuilding typically do so in the draft -- and thus would avoid restricted free agents. But the Redskins have made clear that they plan to field a competitive team as soon as possible.
"There's not many ways that you can improve your team for the long haul other than the draft, and I think you always need to keep that in mind," said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, who's in Year 2 of rebuilding the Lions. "But most of the players that are going to be available in free agency -- the unrestricted players -- are going to be players that are 29, 30, 31 years old. I think the biggest thing about that is, it places a lot more emphasis on getting the player right. . . . There's just a lot more urgency with the unrestricted class. You need to make sure you make good decisions, make sure players fit in the role that you have in mind for them, and then I think that you'll be okay."
Before free agency begins on Friday, the Redskins will have to make immediate decisions on their own free agents. Without a new labor deal in place, the Redskins will have 10 restricted free agents -- defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander, quarterback Jason Campbell, safety Reed Doughty, defensive tackle Kedric Golston, offensive tackle Stephon Heyer, linebacker Rocky McIntosh, defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery, guard Will Montgomery, cornerback Carlos Rogers and linebacker Chris Wilson -- and will have to decide whether to tender offers.
Shanahan has said the Redskins will tender Campbell, and they're expected to tender most of the others, as well. By tendering an offer, the Redskins would be guaranteed compensation if the player eventually signs with another team.
The Redskins will also have to decide whether to retain their eight unrestricted free agents, a list that includes long snapper Ethan Albright, defensive end Phillip Daniels, offensive tackle Levi Jones, center Casey Rabach, punter Hunter Smith, offensive lineman Mike Williams, defensive end Renaldo Wynn and tight end Todd Yoder. The team has already begun negotiations to bring back Rabach.
With the draft still eight weeks away, free agency will be the first chance for Shanahan to really put his fingerprints on the roster that he'll take into his first season as Redskins' head coach. "If we can't do it through free agency, we're going to try to do it through the draft," Shanahan said. "We're going to keep on working to put the best football team together."